"Philomena" (2013) movie review

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Background information

  • Starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
  • Based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith.
  • IMDB.
  • Four Oscar nominations in 2014.
  • Steve Coogan, the actor who plays the reporter, also co-authored the screenplay. Like the reporter, Coogan was raised Catholic but now identifies himself as an atheist.[1]
  • Harvey and Bob Weinstein (Miramax, The Weinstein Company):
"Philomena Never Found Her Son."
Lee never found her son: he died in 1995 and was buried on the grounds at the very convent that took her in when she was in need. She is lying about this because it fits with the lie about her looking frantically for him for 50 years. In the movie, she is depicted as searching for her son in the United States.
PBS, "Journey of the Real Philomena."
It tells the true story of an Irish Catholic girl forced by nuns to give up her son for adoption and her search for him decades later. “If I come out with my story, maybe it will help other women that were like me … maybe they’ll get the courage to try and find their children as well,” says Philomena Lee, the real Philomena. She has launched the Philomena Project to raise awareness and encourage the Irish government and Catholic Church to make adoption records public.
Buffalo Film Society.
Based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Phiomena focuses on the efforts of Philomena Lee (Dench), mother to a boy conceived out of wedlock — something her Irish-Catholic community didn’t have the highest opinion of — and given away for adoption in the United States. In following church doctrine, she was forced to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any sort of inquiry into the son’s whereabouts. After starting a family years later in England and, for the most part, moving on with her life, Lee meets Sixsmith (Coogan), a BBC reporter with whom she decides to discover her long-lost son.
"Debunking Philomena."
Now that it has been nominated for four Oscars, "Philomena" is bound to attract a lot of attention. It should also attract attention for what it really is: a cruel caricature of nuns that is based on half-truths and out-and-out lies. That it appeals to the worst appetite in anti-Catholic bigots is not debatable. "A film that is half as harsh on Judaism or Islam, of course, wouldn't be made in the first place," writes Kyle Smith in the New York Post, "and would be universally reviled if it were."
... mean-spirited Irish nuns oppress poor Catholic girls.
"‘Philomena’ another hateful and boring attack on Catholics."
The film can’t quite decide whether the young mother was forced to give up her son Anthony; it makes as look as though she was, but also includes a scene in which contemporary Philomena adamantly denies coercion.

My thoughts

Adoption is hard on all involved.

Jesus was adopted by Joseph.

Each one of us is an adopted child of God. When we are "born again," we are given a new Father, a new family, and a new identity.

We must pray for:

  • Philomena
  • her mother, who died when Philomena was six years old
  • her father, who placed her in the Laundry and told her family that she was dead
  • her five brothers and sisters
  • the man who fathered her son
  • her son, who died at age 43 of AIDS
  • all of the sisters who took care of her in an orphanage from age 6 to age 18
  • all parents who have given up children for adoption
  • all of the children who were give up for adoption
  • all of the adopting parents and families
  • all of the sisters who worked in the Magdalene Laundries
  • all 10,000 women and their children who were cared for in the Laundries

This is an extremely sad story--a whole series of tragedies. Philomena's forgiveness of the sister whom she blames for hurting her, stealing her child from her, and selling him to an American family is a model for us to follow. The evil that others do us is evil; the evil that we do to ourselves by refusing to forgive is a second and unnecessary evil.

Some beautiful photography and great acting--two sunlit scenes especially. I liked both Dame Judi Dench and Steven Coogan's interpretation of their roles. I liked Dench's character very much: "a little old Irish lady."

[Hmm. An English dame playing a simple-minded Irish peasant is just like our actors playing simple-minded countryfolk. Cf. Tom Hanks & Forrest Gump, the one-act play that my Jesuit brother wrote about a husband changing his mind about his wife doing nude scenes with her "nut-brown body" after he grasped how much money she would earn by stripping for the camera.]

We must hold in contempt all that was truly contemptible in the treatment of the children under the care of the sisters who ran the Magdalen Laundries. But we must not hold in contempt those who deserve no contempt. That is a hard judgment to make at this historical distance from the events.

  • If some sisters spoke and behaved like the fictitious Sr. Hildegard, we have to condemn their sins. Irish sexual Puritanism is a perversion of the Church's teachings, not a representation of them.
  • If the Church sold babies, that's evil. Accepting donations is good.

Rebecca: "Your notes make the film seem schizophrenic."

Joe: "It's a movie, not a documentary."

The movie stereotypes the nuns and their work for those who were in need. It rouses and confirms hatred of Catholicism. Birth of a Nation was not given a free pass because it was a work of fiction; it roused the ire of African Americans and inspired a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
I think it is legitimate to diagram where the fiction and reality diverge so as to see what kind of choices the script writers made and what meanings those changes may reveal.
I don't talk about this with Joe. His declaration was the end of the conversation.
Here is exactly how the movie promotes stereotyping of the sisters:
Among the more heartrending tales in the sorry annals of the twentieth-century Catholic Church is of tens of thousands of “bad” Irish girls virtually enslaved by the good sisters of the Magdalene asylum-cum-laundries. Until those damnable institutions closed forever in 1996, young women worked eight to ten hours, 364 days a year, worn down by taunting lectures on the evils of the flesh and frequent beatings. They were also forced to give up all rights to their out-of-wedlock children. ...
Philomena is real — I heard her go on at charming length after a recent screening — and is the subject of a book called The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Brit journalist Martin Sixsmith. [2]
The true events that "inspired" the story
  • Philomena was raised by sisters in an orphanage herself after the death of her mother.
  • She became pregnant at age 18.
  • She gave birth to a son.
  • She worked in the Magdalene Laundries.
  • She agreed to give her son up for adoption when she was 22.
  • The sisters found her a job that allowed her to move out of the Laundry.
The fictional elements
  • Lee and Sixsmith never met with Sister Hildegarde:
Sister Julie said: ‘The film company confirmed to us in writing at an early stage of production that a second meeting with Sister Hildegarde would be incorporated into the film and dramatic license was the reason given to us.’ She said Sister Hildegarde, who died in 1995, had in fact been instrumental in reuniting many mothers with their children.[3]
The character of the reporter in the movie says he is interested only in the truth--he is held up as the skeptical hero--but he never questions the claim that babies were sold by the nuns. He exercises the very kind of 'blind faith' that he criticizes Christians for--he believes on someone else's say-so!
Martin Sixsmith says of himself: "I’d recently lost my job as a government communications director after a row with Alastair Campbell and Stephen Byers (it was about telling the truth) and I was at a loose end."[4]
  • Lee and Sixsmith never traveled to the United States together. All of the scenes and dialogue that take place in the U.S. are purely imaginary.
"A story need not be true to be true."
As a work of fiction, it is a lovely story. The simple woman of faith forgives her tormentors. She treats every person as if they were "one in a million." Her forgiveness of Sr. Hildegaard conquers the hardened heart of the journalist. Her acceptance of her son's fate in life, for good and for ill, gives her peace. She refuses to remain angry. She is truly an admirable character in this work of fiction.
  • Dench's character says, "No one coerced me. I signed of my own free will." But Sixsmith's character always speaks of the nuns forcing her to give up her child for adoption.
  • Lee's daughter discovered Michael Hess's identity before contacting Sixsmith. He helped find the American family and Hess's partner.
"Philomena Gets It Wrong."
For one, in the 1950s, the Catholic Church in Ireland was the only group caring for women in distress. They would welcome women in crisis and arrange adoptions for their unplanned children.
  • There is no evidence that children were “sold” to the “highest bidder.”
  • There is no evidence that women were forced into slave labor.
  • And the “cruel, harsh” nuns that the film depicts were often the ones working hardest for family unification.
  • Never did the Catholic Church imply that they burned the records in a fire.
What alternative was there?
  • abortion
  • begging
  • prostitution
  • menial labor somewhere else--in a poor house
The movie does what it condemns.
If it is bad to condemn sin, then the movie ought not to condemn the sisters for their sins.
If it is good to condemn sin, then the movie supports the Irish culture, the father's shame, the alleged hatred of Sr. Hildegaard for those whom she served, and criticism of Philomena and her lover for their unchaste behavior.
The media are merciless with the sins of the sisters while pleading for mercy for the sins of Philomena and her lover. Straining the gnat and swallowing the camel. The media love the sins of the flesh. "Anything that feels so good can't be bad." The character Philomena: "I loved it. I loved the love-making."
Lee: And after I had the sex, I thought anything that feels so lovely must be wrong.
Sixsmith: @#$%&*! Catholics.
To attribute what a few nuns said to the whole Church is wrong. It is a hasty and unfair generalization to say, "Whatever any Catholics say anywhere at any time is what the Church believes."


Why did God create such an appetite and decree that it could not be fulfilled?
Hidden assumption: it is good for us to do whatever we feel like doing. There is no role for chastity in Sixsmith's view of life.
The Catholic Church should go to confession, not you!
Lee: And after I had the sex, I thought anything that feels so lovely must be wrong.
Sixsmith: @#$%&*! Catholics.
Just because he is in first class, it does not mean that he is first class.

Sixsmith quotes four lines from T. S. Eliot.

T. S. Elliot, "Little Gidding" ("Four Quartets").

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.